Political Science

Nonetheless it is considering tolerating them, as we are told by Air Genius Gary Leff.  Here is one short bit:

The tourism minister says that even though the Greek Prime Minister is attacking all-inclusive resorts as it identifies problems with the country’s economy, it has no plans to make crackdown on these properties ‘its mission’.

How reassuring.  Greece needs some Very Serious People in charge!  Right now it doesn’t have them.  And as you know, one thing worse than the Very Serious People is…the Not Very Serious People.  I think someone told them that all-inclusive resorts might drain off domestic aggregate demand (p.s. investment matters too, including for demand).

Oh, had I mentioned that tourism provides 15% of Greek gdp? (higher by some estimates, perhaps up to 20%).  I’m all for debt forgiveness in this context, but right now the Greeks need to get serious or they will tumble off the cliff and soon.

In addition to my earlier pick of Chile, I now must nominate Sweden and Norway for this honor.  Both are wonderful countries, and in absolute terms very likely to remain strong performers.  But I think a good deal of that old Nordic magic is slipping away, and this has become more evident in the last few years.

Let’s start with Sweden and maybe I’ll get to Norway another time:

1. The average product of their education system seems to have declined rather rapidly, as measured by test scores.  On PISA they have gone from #4 to #21.

2. Arguably the basic Swedish economic social model is inconsistent with their level of immigration, and I don’t see them switching to a different economic and social model anytime soon.  You can be pro-immigration, and still not think Sweden is honing in on the right mix of domestic policy and immigration policy.

3. Swedish manufacturing seems to be deindustrializing at a faster than expected pace.  And some of Sweden’s most successful sectors are exposed to a lot of competition from emerging markets, in particular because they rely heavily on engineering talent.  Sweden also has a significant presence in financial services, but they are not an obvious future winner in that area.  And do timber, hydropower, and iron — their main commodity exports — have such a promising future?  There are probably few disasters lurking here, but lots of question marks.

4. Sweden doesn’t seem to have a lot of low-hanging fruit left.  Female participation in the labor force already is high, and they already have done lots of liberalization, privatization, and deregulation.  It is not clear where the next generation of policy improvements will come from.  The McKinsey report recommends “increasing government productivity” as a major source of potential gains, but that is hardly easy, even for the Swedes.

5. The Swedish central bank seems to have scored an “own goal” by engaging in premature tightening, coming out of the earlier recession.  They’ll make much of that up over time, but still it is a sign the country has lost some mojo.

6. Sweden’s household to debt ratio is about 170%, one of the highest in the world.  This is not only troubling in its own right, but arguably it is a sign debt is being used to make up for a slow accumulation of underlying economic deficiencies, as was the case in the United States.  Furthermore “Four in 10 mortgage borrowers in Sweden are not paying off their debt, according to data collected by Reuters, and those that are repaying the principal are doing so at a rate that would on average take nearly a century.”  They are probably still in the middle of a housing bubble.

7. There is an erosion of support for mainstream Swedish political parties.  You don’t have to approve of those parties to see this as a symptom of a very slight underlying political rot setting in.  The “extreme Right” party has seen a rapid rise in support.

8. A rampaging Putin probably won’t harm them directly, but still recent Russian events raise geopolitical risk in their neighborhood.

Don’t worry, the Swedes will do fine, but they have arrived at officially overrated status.  I was more sanguine about their prospects a few years ago than I am today and I would not invest in their stock market.  If you wish to count their pluses however, they still have a very good system of government, a strong ethic of trust and cooperation, a good ability to change course when necessary, high productivity, a strong presence in information technology, a wonderful export capacity, low public debt, and first-rate proficiency in English, among other virtues.

That all said, the Swedish currency is actually down against the euro since the beginning of the year.

The new far-left government in Greece dropped a bombshell on its first day in office by abjuring an EU statement on Russia.

There is more here, via Anders Aslund.  I guess they don’t have any other European issues they need to spend their political capital on…

“Dear Tyler,

I read with obvious interest your post (and the paper itself) about the endogeneity of institutions. Leaving aside my issues with the IV literature, I decided to take the bait regarding Jeff Sachs’ challenge to, “Go back to 1960 and choose any measure of institutional quality you want. Then see how well it predicts cross-national growth since then.”

Ok, I will.

The Economic Freedom of the World (EFW) index was first published in the mid 1990s, and the first year of data is 1970. So I’ll have to start in 1970 instead of 1960.

Here is a regression with growth from 1970-2010 on the lhs, and EFW and GDP per capita in 1970 on the rhs.

Growth1970-2010 = -1.62 + 0.75*EFW1970 – 0.13* GDPPC1970 R^2=0.18
(2.90) (3.17)

This regression adds the change in EFW from 1970-1980 to the rhs.

Growth1970-2010 = -1.69 + 0.84*EFW1970 + 1.00*chEFW70-80 – 0.15*GDPPC1970 R^2=0.32
(3.54) (3.39) (3.86)

A one-unit higher EFW score in 1970 correlates to 0.84 percentage points in higher annual growth over the next 40 years. A one unit EFW score improvement during the first decade, 1970 to 1980, correlates to a 1.00 percentage point higher annual growth rate over the 40 years.

I don’t know if that satisfies Jeff Sachs’ challenge, but it works for me.

Looking forward, I’ve constructed a back-of-the-envelope indicator that combines each country’s EFW rating in 2000 and with its change from 2000-2010. The top 20 (combined highest level & most positive change) versus the bottom 20 (combine lowest level & most negative change) countries are:

Top 20 – Bottom 20
Hong Kong – Haiti
Romania – Cameroon
Rwanda – Senegal
Singapore – Guinea-Bissau
Bulgaria – Mali
Cyprus – Bolivia
Unit. Arab Em. – Algeria
Chile – Guyana
Mauritius – Gabon
Lithuania – Ecuador
Slovak Rep – Burundi
Albania – Cote d’Ivoire
Jordan – Chad
Switzerland – Togo
Bahamas – Congo, Rep. Of
Malta – Central Afr. Rep.
Taiwan – Argentina
Korea, South – Myanmar
Finland – Zimbabwe
Estonia – Venezuela

I’m willing to bet anyone $100 (up to 10 people) that the Top 20 group will outgrow the Bottom 20 group by at least 1 full percentage point per year (on average) over the the next 20 year period (2015-2035).

Bob”

American Sniper is one of the best anti-war movies I have seen, ever.  But it shows the sniper-assassin, and his killing, to be sexy, and to be regarded as sexy by women, while the rest of war is dull and stupid.  (Even the two enemy snipers are quite attractive and fantastic figures, and there is a deliberate parallel between the family life of the Syrian sniper and the American protagonist.  The klutziness of the non-assassin soldiers limited how many African-Americans and Hispanics they were willing to cast in those roles, as it is easiest to make white guys look crass in this way without causing offense.)  By making the attractions of war palpable, this film disturbs and confuses people and also occasions some of the worst critical reviews I have read.  It also, by understanding and then dissecting the attractions of blood lust, becomes a quite convincing anti-war movie, if you doubt this spend a few months studying The Iliad.  (By the way, Clint Eastwood, the director and producer, describes the movie as anti-war.)  The murder scenes create an almost unbearable tension, the sandstorm is a metaphor for our collective fog, and they had the stones to opt for the emotional overkill of four rather than just three tours of duty.  Iraq is presented as a hopeless wasteland with nothing of value or relevance to the United States, and at the end of the story America proves its own worst enemy.  It is not clear who ever gets over having killed and fought in a war (can anything else be so gripping?…neither family life nor sex…), even when appearances suggest a kind of normality has returned.  The generational cycle is in any case replenished.  I say A or A+, both as a movie and as a Rorschach test.

Two Days, One Night has some of the worst economics I have seen in a movie, ever.  It would be brilliant as a kind of Randian (or for that matter Keynesian) meta-critique of the screwed up nature of Belgian labor markets and social norms, and most of all a critique of the inability of the Belgian intelligentsia to understand this, except it is not.  It is meant as a straight-up plea for sympathy for the victim and as such it fails miserably, even though as a movie it embodies reasonably good production values.  Everything in the workplace of this solar power company is zero-sum across the workers and we never see why.  The protagonist campaigns to get her job back, but never asks or even considers how she might improve her productivity or attitude, asking only on the basis of need.  (And she is turned down only on the basis of need.)  At one point her employer states the zero marginal product hypothesis quite precisely, something like “when you took time off, we saw that sixteen people could do the work of seventeen.”  She never asks if there might be some other way she could contribute — but she does need the money — nor does the notion of a better job match somewhere else rear its head.  The depictions of financial hardship confuse wealth and income, basic survival and discretionary spending.  The rave reviews this movie has received represent yet another Rorschach test and one which virtually every commentator seems to have failed.

When I visited Santa Monica in January it struck me how much it reminded me of…Arlington.  Arlington is now essentially a part of Northwest, at least Arlington above Route 50 or so.  Arlington and Santa Monica have never been more alike, or less distinctive.

Parts of east Falls Church will meld into Arlington, and south Arlington will become more like north Arlington.  Real estate prices east/north of a particular line are rising and west of that line are falling.  Fairfax is definitely west of that line.

The Tysons Corner remake will fail, Vienna is not the new Clarendon, and the Silver Line and the monstrously wide Rt.7 will form a new dividing line between parts of Virginia which resemble Santa Monica and parts which do not.

Incumbents aside, no one lives in Fairfax any more to commute into D.C.  Why would you?  The alternatives are getting better and Metro parking became too difficult some time ago.  Fairfax is not being transformed, although some parts are morphing into “the new Shirlington.”  Most of it will stay dumpy on the retail side.  Annandale will stay with Fairfax, whether it likes it or not.

For ten years now I have been predicting various Fairfax restaurants will close — casualties of too-high rents — and mostly I have been wrong.  The good Annandale restaurants are running strong too.  Annandale won’t look much better anytime soon, thank goodness for that.

“Northern Virginia” is becoming two different places, albeit slowly.

Mostly, yes, although with some caveats (the headline of the piece doesn’t exactly capture this).  That is the topic of my latest column for The Upshot.  Here is one excerpt:

Niclas Berggren…and Therese Nilsson…have produced a fascinating series of papers on these questions, sometimes writing singly, sometimes together or with the collaboration of a variety of co-authors. Their most notable study is perhaps a paper they wrote together, “Does Economic Freedom Foster Tolerance?

…One of their most striking findings is that societies characterized by greater economic freedom and greater wealth do indeed exhibit greater tolerance toward gay people, a tendency suggesting that gay rights, including gay marriage, will spread globally as national economies liberalize and develop.

Some metrics of economic freedom count more than others:

This greater tolerance is strongly associated only with certain features of what has often been defined as economic freedom. For example, a smaller government, measured as a share of gross domestic product, is often included in so-called economic freedom indexes as an objective measure of freedom. But the data show that smaller government has a slight negative correlation with tolerance of gay people by heterosexuals. One implication is that many conservatives may be overly preoccupied with the size of government as a measure of how free societies actually are.

On the other hand, the data shows that when a society has impressive scores on property rights security and low inflation — two other components of economic freedom indexes — these characteristics are strongly and positively correlated with tolerance of gays. It’s possible that low inflation, and the behavior of a central bank, are stand-ins for the general trustworthiness of a nation’s government and broader institutions, and such trustworthiness helps foster tolerance.

The results for race are not nearly as strong, namely both freedom and prosperity are less clearly associated with higher levels of racial tolerance, although the correlation is still a positive one.

And there is this:

We are often told that education is an important remedy, yet it does not register as a meaningful factor in the cross-country data in this paper. Higher levels of education simply have not correlated significantly with higher levels of tolerance across countries.

Do read the whole thing.

Kerin Hope from the FT reports:

A reluctance to pay taxes was much criticised by Greece’s creditors as one reason why the country needed a big international bailout. Now many Greeks are again avoiding the taxman as they bet the radical left Syriza party will quickly loosen fiscal policy if it comes to power in Sunday’s general election.

A finance ministry official confirmed on Friday that state revenues had collapsed this month. “It’s normal for the tax take to decline during an election campaign but this time it’s more noticeable,” the official said, avoiding any specific figures on the projected shortfall.

However, two private sector economists forecast the shortfall could exceed €1.5bn, or more than 40 per cent of projected revenues for January.

File under “In case you had not been paying attention…”  And here is Antonio Fatás with a Grexit scenario.  That is still not what most people expect, however.

SNB tweets to ponder

by on January 21, 2015 at 11:20 am in Economics, Education, Political Science | Permalink

It’s funny how faculty who work at universities with large endowments can’t understand the decisions of the Swiss National Bank…

That one is from me.  In this kind of status-driven, bureaucratic environment, the incentive is to extend your cushion, not run it down and have to print up new money to replenish it, thereby receiving egg on your face and appearing dependent and outside the rules of the game.  You’ll do better understanding the SNB by reading Pierre Bourdieu on social capital than portfolio theory or the literature on optimal seigniorage.

I will note that university endowments are somewhat of a puzzle too (pdf) — for instance why don’t schools spend them down more, as a kind of crude political business cycle theory might suggest?

(On the other hand, just try dropping your items into a Swiss recycling bin on a Sunday.)

There is at least one big difference here: the SNB doesn’t want a balance sheet which is as large as possible, because that means both assets and liabilities.  Colleges and universities are far more likely to wish to maximize their endowments, which do not (one hopes) come with offsetting liabilities.  The “endowment” of a central bank has more to do with political chits, favors, and public impressions, backed by extreme solvency but not too big a target either.

Paul Krugman makes some good and interesting points about the comparison with Hong Kong; in my view influence capital in Hong Kong has been (ultimately) determined externally for a very long time, first Britain now China.  That gives the territory some special feasibility properties for a wide variety of issues.  Krugman is falling into a kind of sophisticated “public choice” mistake that is more frequently committed by libertarians.

In none of these cases am I suggesting that the current incentives are optimal from a social point of view.  And here is an earlier post on central banks and capital.  It is not that a partially privately-owned, cantonally owned SNB is maximizing raw seigniorage, a view which has come in for some rebuttal as of late.  Rather the partial private ownership helps account for what kind of legitimacy needs to be produced and what kinds of rules that legitimacy requires.

C’mon people, read your Gramsci!

Tom VanAntwerp looks at political donations by the staff of the top-ten think tanks. Some findings:

Think tank employees overwhelmingly give to Democratic causes. Nearly 78% of all political contributions from think tank employees went to Democrats. 208 think tank employees gave a total of  $452,589 to Democrats in 2012;

Discussions of bias via donor base don’t match actual employee partisanship.Comparing the most obviously ideological think tanks, employees of both Heritage Foundation and Center for American Progress gave vastly more to political groups than did employees of Cato Institute. While the Wikipedia discussion of Cato’s funders was over three times longer than the same discussion for either Heritage or CAP, only 3.5% of Cato’s employees made partisan donations compared to 8.7% for Heritage and 8.2% for CAP. The total amount Cato employees gave was also dwarfed by Heritage and CAP employees: $10,200 versus $76,653 and $100,747.

In another post, VanAntwerp shows that even though the staff at Cato don’t give very much to politicians and are not especially partisan by other think tank standards, media discussion’s of Cato’s funding and funders are far more common and extensive than that of any other think tank. My guess is that conservatives give Heritage a pass, liberals give Brookings, CAP, and Pew a pass but both liberals and conservatives are suspicious of Cato. Liberals think Cato is in bed with the corporations, conservatives think Cato is in bed with gays and marijuana users. Both sides think Cato is with the opposition and, as a result, Cato generates lots of media discussion about funding “bias.”

chart2

In Foreign Affairs, James Bessen writes:

U.S. procurement programs worked so well in part because the Pentagon gave its business to a diverse group of private firms, including start-ups and university spinoffs such as Bolt, Beranek and Newman (now BBN Technologies), one of the companies that helped develop the Internet. It also required contractors to share their technologies with universities and other private firms, encouraging further innovation outside the government. By contrast, France and the United Kingdom often used government contracts to promote national telephone and computer companies, and the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union limited the interaction between government researchers and their civilian counterparts, cutting off the private sector from high-tech advancements. The Pentagon also encouraged contractors to adopt open technical standards—such as the set of protocols, established in 1982, that specified how data should be packaged and transmitted on the Internet—which allowed knowledge to spread quickly and easily.

In the past few decades, however, procurement has strayed from this successful formula. Instead of awarding contracts to start-ups and spinoffs, the Pentagon has favored traditional defense contractors. The Defense Department tasks these contractors with meeting the military’s narrow needs and too often prohibits them from sharing their work with universities or other companies. An example from the past reveals how problematic such policies can be. In 1977, when the Pentagon sought to create high-speed semiconductor chips, Congress prohibited the contractors hired from sharing their research. University researchers were effectively excluded from the program, and chipmakers were forced to separate their defense work from their commercial operations. Unlike the government procurement programs in the 1950s and 1960s, which spawned many start-ups, this billion-dollar program did little to commercialize new technology.

The article offers other points of interest, mostly about how special interests have undermined entrepreneurship.  I have recently pre-ordered Bessen’s forthcoming book on this theme.

For the pointer I thank Spencer England.

Here is the abstract of a 1997 Peter Stella paper:

Central banks may operate perfectly well without capital as conventionally defined. A large negative net worth, however, is likely to compromise central bank independence and interfere with its ability to attain policy objectives. If society values an independent central bank capable of effectively implementing monetary policy, recapitalization may become essential. Proper accounting practice in determining central bank profit or loss and rules governing the transfer of the central bank`s operating result to the treasury are also important. A variety of country-specific central bank practices are reviewed to support the argument.

More concretely, I am not persuaded by the view that a kind of sheer internal commitment to good outcomes, however sincere, can sustain a peg or nominal target.  The outside world always impinges on the logic of commitment, and thus capital is required.  This is also why I do not agree with Scott Sumner’s claim that a truly credible Swiss target, eliminating the need to expand the SNB balance sheet to make it stick, is possible circa January 2015 or for that matter anytime soon.

I do not, however, see time inconsistency as the central problem.  More likely the government either just doesn’t want to take the specified action (e.g., Germany with higher inflation), or part of the government would like to do something but it doesn’t have enough political capital (Draghi at the ECB).  Time consistency models have some neat analytic properties but often they distract our attention from these more fundamental constraints.

The pointer is from Alen Mattich, a financial journalist who by the way has just published another detective novel, Heart of Hell.

Paul Krugman writes:

Two things to bear in mind. First, having in effect thrown away its credibility – in today’s world, the crucial credibility central banks need involves, not willingness to take away the punch bowl, but willingness to keep pushing liquor on an abstemious crowd – it’s hard to see how the SNB can get it back. Second, there will be spillovers: the SNB’s wimp-out will make life harder for monetary policy in other countries, because it will leave markets skeptical about whether other supposed commitments to keep up unconventional policy will similarly prove time-limited.

Brad DeLong and Scott Sumner agree the Swiss move was a bad idea.  We’re all in accord on the economics (more or less), but I am more interested in a different question.  The Swiss central bank, had it continued the peg, probably would have had a balance sheet larger than Swiss gdp.  But does this matter?  Should anyone care?  Or does that make them “too big a guy on the block”?

I see two views of the world running around in these discussions, but not always articulated as such:

1. Bureaucrats, which includes central bankers, are not so much budget maximizers as hoarders of institutional capital.  They hoard institutional capital when they should be spending it down, in the interests of the broader polity.  So this is a public choice problem, rather than a matter of macroeconomic ignorance.  When it comes to macroeconomics, we need institutional reforms which induce them or maybe even require them to spend down this capital, come what may for their personal levels of political influence.

2. Bureaucrats hoard and indeed extend institutional capital because they know how important it is to maintain the quality of significant institutions, such as central banks.  Without such capital , semi-independent central banks would soon cease to exist, to the detriment of us all.  Outside academics, however, rarely can see the importance of this factor, because they have less experience running political institutions.  When smart central bankers — which yes includes the Swiss — are apparently doing the wrong thing, it is because they are seeing more variables of the problem than we are.  They either cannot do “the right thing,” or doing that would be too costly in terms of the country’s longer-term institutional prospects.

By the way, there is also #3, which I do not find credible:

3. The Swiss central bankers suddenly became stupid and forgot their macroeconomics.

I agree there is plenty of #1 out there, maybe for Switzerland too.  But I’d like to see more debate of #1 vs. #2, because I don’t think the Swiss central bankers — praised extravagantly by many of us not too long ago — simply would tank their economy for no good reason at all.

Addendum: Here is Dean Baker’s dissent, although I think the stock market does not agree.  And Scott Sumner comments, he seems to opt for #3.  Here are useful comments from the FT.

Here are some staggering statistics: Since 2006, state and local real investment in highways and streets has fallen by 22%.  Their spending on sewer systems, in real terms, is also down by 22%. And real investment by state and local governments in water systems has fallen by a stunning 34% (chart below).

Meanwhile, over the same period, private real investment by telecommunications and broadcasting companies is up by 13%, according to statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Why, then, does President Obama want to load yet another spending burden–muni broadband–on localities that are already stretched too thin to cover their existing obligations?

That is from Michael Mandel.

a public outcry has arisen over a town council plan to house refugees in a building that once served as a Nazi command post at the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Schwerte, a community of 50,000 south of Dortmund, has decided to move 21 refugees into the camp’s only remaining building on the outskirts of the town.

The move comes, town officials say, because all the refugee housing in the town’s jurisdiction is already filled with 200 asylum seekers, and the town doesn’t have the money to purchase temporary structures. According to the town council’s spokeswoman, “The solution is a practical one.”

The full story is here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.